Mojo intact: 10th annual Roots Picnic draws more than 10,000 to a mix of entertainment
The two most-fun things to happen in the marathon fest's early hours were the Black Thought & J. Period Mixtape, an old-school rap clinic featuring the Roots rapper born Tariq Trotter, and Thundercat, the bassist whose polyglot aesthetic encapsulates the festival's eclecticism in one expansive vision.
With the advent of last weekend's Hoagie Nation, the Roots Picnic has lost its place of honor as Philadelphia's unofficial summer-starting music festival along the Delaware River.
But rest assured, music fans, the daylong confab has not lost its mojo. That was apparent throughout the vibrant multi-stage event that's as musically healthy and relevant in its 10th year as when the Philadelphia hip-hop band started it a decade ago.
And it was surely evident during the headlining set in which the Roots -- after opening with a dazzling extended set piece showing off the formidable flow of rapper Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter -- shared the stage with "Happy" hit maker Pharrell Williams.
As is to be expected from a band as demanding of themselves as the Roots, their hook-up with Pharrell didn't settle for re-creating his hits. Sure, the Philly hip-hop group led by Trotter and drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson (sporting a new summer hairdo) backed Williams on "Blurred Lines," his overplayed sleazy mega hit with Robin Thicke. But they reimagined it with fresh verses rapped by Trotter, then segued into a rearranged version of "The Seed 2.0," the Roots' own trademark hit with Cody Chesnutt. And with Williams' dancers and band members joining the Roots onstage, it turned into a conglomerative ensemble that refitted from both Williams' high-level songwriting craft and the Roots' unmatched musicality.
Plus, they worked through a condensed take on Kendrick Lamar's Black Lives Matter anthem "Alright," and later brought out rapper Pusha T, N.O.R.E., and Tyler the Creator as special guests.
Solange preceded the Roots with a shimmery set of artfully mannered alt-R&B on the South stage. After tantalizingly teasing her talent over several years, Solange stepped out from the shadow of her sister Beyoncé Knowles with last year's fully realized and highly personal A Seat at the Table.
Bathed in red light as the sun went down Saturday night, her calmly choreographed presentation, complete with a horn section and a complement of backup singers, mixed mildly pulsing beats with touches of gospel and a feathery delicateness reminiscent of Thom Bell Philly soul.
"I tried to write it away, or cry it away," she sang in her most effective song, "Cranes in the Sky," about the impossibility of ever fully outrunning personal demons or the long reach of racism.
The two most-fun things to happen in the marathon fest's early hours were the Black Thought & J. Period Mixtape, an old-school rap clinic featuring the Roots' Trotter, and Thundercat, the bassist whose polyglot aesthetic encapsulates the festival's eclecticism in one expansive vision.
Black Thought's moonlighting (or perhaps daylighting) gig with deejay J. Period (born Joel Astman) burst with infectious energy as the rapper rhymed Salvador Dali with Mario Batali and boasted of being "so ahead of my time I'm counterclockwise." He appeared thrilled to have back on stage with him Scott Storch, the former Roots keyboard player who went on to a lucrative career as a hit-making producer, and whose knack for an instantly memorable piano figure was readily apparent.
Also appearing, with boundless energy, was the veteran Bronx emcee Fat Joe, who fired up a cigar of some kind onstage in appreciation of Black Thought's verbal prowess.
Thundercat followed that act by leading his dazzling trio while wearing brightly colored gym shorts that sort of matched his dyed fuchsia hairdo. Pulling from his new space-age yacht-rock album Drunk, he sang in a supple falsetto in songs that were at once light on their feet and powerfully funky in the low end. Freaky, and unconcerned with genre barriers, in a most satisfying way.
It was a perfect day for a picnic. Another standout was Noname, the Chicago rapper born Fatima Warner known for her 2016 mixtape Telephone and close association with fellow Windy City rhymes Chance the Rapper. At the Picnic, Warner fronted a three-piece band and captivated the early-arriving crowd with sly rhymes that were self-effacing and skeptical of materialism ("And I know the money won't make me whole / the magazine covers drenched in gold") even as they were asserted with a confident command that made it clear her name is one to remember.
Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow's folk roots might have made him seem the odd man out at the Picnic, where thumping beats are more common than acoustic guitars. But McMorrow has made himself over into a sort of alt-R&B folk crooner, working with hip-hop producers on last year's We Move and True Care. On Saturday he went on an hour later than scheduled, due to Lil Wayne's cancellation due to illness, and his late arrival gave a larger portion of the crowd a chance to hear him apply an impressive falsetto to his hybrid soul-folk songs.
The Picnic marked the first Philadelphia appearance by Ugandan-British songwriter Michael Kiwanuka since his magisterial 2016 album Love & Hate. Opening with the slowly sweeping orchestral build-up to "Cold Little Heart" - familiar to fans of the HBO series Big Little Lies -- Kiwanuka mellowed down easy with an early '70s soul sound that recalled Bill Withers and Van Morrison.